Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life

“I’m playing the long game.”

My billiards partner glanced up at me as he said this and then narrowed his eyes at the pool table as he adjusted his stance. I had suggested he take an easier and more straight shot, but he was focused on long-term strategy. He wanted to set himself up to get multiple shots in one play. This involved taking a more difficult shot first so the cue ball would end up where he wanted it. Continue reading “Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life”

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Little Black Belt is FIVE!!!

five fabulous

On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…

Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.

Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!

If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂

For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.

2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner.
The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly)
I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good.
Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close.
Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On.
It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.

2015 – The journey to black belt gets REAL!!
Power Trip – Do you stand in your power or do you shy away? Food for thought from one of the best yoga teachers I’ve ever had.
Final Color Belt Test – Savoring my last moments as a color belt before the new black belt journey.
Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…Well, Kicking and Screaming – My former Master gives me some words of wisdom, and I reflect on where taekwondo has taken me. (And I’m still working on the book, you guys!)
I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious – Of course I have to include this post. Testing for black belt is a Veuve Cliquot kind of day.
I Am My Own Nemesis – The uniform in question by the Mooto company still pops like a freshly washed sheet on a laundry line. “Designed for maximum sound!”

2016 – Settling into being a black belt student and instructor…
Love Is Like Grape Soda – This might be my favorite post of all time, and it has nothing to do with taekwondo.
Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class – This post continues to get hits and seems to be popular than readers. And yes, I still have a love/dread thing for sparring.
When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A disappointing art exhibit (and a non-disappointing donut) made me miss the ones who mattered the most.
You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long – My musician brother’s take on success and continuous improvement
Black Belt: a Year in Review – It turns out the black belt test never really stopped

2017 – I recommend checking out this entire year. I had a lot of good personal/professional experiences and translated it into writing
Channeling Your Power – Makes me miss my days of teaching poomsae (forms), and it’s a nice call back to the “Power Trip” post in 2015.
Don’t Forget Where You Came From – We’re all still that white belt who never gave up, whatever “white belt” is to you.
The Best Birthday – This was seriously the best surprise I’ve ever gotten on my birthday, and it just happened to take place in the dojang.
You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For – Don’t wait for someone else to show up and fix things, rescue you, or make you happy. YOU are that person!
Being Okay With Where You Are – A hiccup in plans forced me to reflect on whether I really accepted….well…self-acceptance.

2018 – The crappy year that ended with a tattoo and beaten up hands, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.
You Know More Than You Think You Do (Nopei) – My favorite Master’s departure gave me the courage to forage my own path.
The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed) – A poster I bought for my office gave me motivation when I wanted to quit in more ways than one.
Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo – I got a permanent (and pretty!!) reminder of who I’ve become and what’s gotten me there.
Why I Left MyTaekwondo School – In case you were wondering, here’s the story…some of it, anyway.
I’m at a New Dojang! (And Have the Cuts and Bruises to Prove It) – The year started out on an incredibly stressful note, but it ended with a fresh start and lots of board breaking.

2019 – It’s been an awesome year so far. I got serious about a new hobby and finally connected with a different style of forms. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
When In Doubt, Go To Class – You all have that thing that puts you in the zone, in that right frame of mind. GO DO IT.
Taekwondo Never Leaves You – A post I started two years ago came back to haunt me in a good way. I’ve left taekwondo a few times, but it has never left me.
Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic – Being a good black belt means you get to roll up your (dobok) sleeves, dig in, and PLAY!
When Starting Is More Difficult Than Finishing – This seemed to be popular with many readers. Looks like I struck a nerve!
When to Speak and When to Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms – Taekwondo forms are like performing Shakespeare and speaking beginner conversational Spanish…that’s my take anyway. During one solo practice in the dojang I learned a lot about how we interact and speak with each other without saying a word.

Thanks again for all your support! Let’s keep this going!

Guest Writer: The Benefits Taiji Has on Mental Health

While taekwondo poomsae (forms) can be a rewarding form of moving mediation, there are many other ways to improve one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from martial arts. Guest writer Adam Durnham shares the benefits of taiji (tai chi) in this post. If you would like to be a guest blogger for Little Black Belt, please read the contributing guidelines here

Tai-Chi

Also known as tai chi, taiji is a low-impact body-mind exercise or martial art that originated in China. In Asia, people have practiced it for many centuries and it helps improve health and fitness 

Taiji has gained popularity in the West and people use it to enhance their overall psychological well-being and mood. Many scientific studies have researched taiji as well as breathing control and physical exercises related to taiji known as qigong. Many of these studies claim that taiji may enhance the mental health of individuals.

“This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and mindfulness, are thought to comprise a state that activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity,” according to some researchers.

The low-impact martial art is associated with reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. When individuals are unable to cope with life’s challenges, they may indulge in behaviors like abusing drugs and alcohol. They may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression. To help improve mental health and reduce the chances of abusing alcohol or drugs, individuals may want to practice taiji. Let’s examine how this martial art may help the body deal with mental tension.

Managing Stress

One reason to practice taiji is to reduce stress. People may experience stress due to many reasons. If you have a chronic disease, you probably deal with a lot of stress. You may also experience stress when you face life challenges relating to your finances, work, family, and relationships.

Conventional Chinese medicine teaches that illness occurs because of an imbalance between opposing life forces, yang and yin. Taiji helps reestablish balance and create harmony between the mind and body. It also helps connect a person with the outside world. Practicing taiji can help reduce stress and improve your mental health.

To practice taiji, people perform a series of body movements in a slow but focused manner. Deep breathing accompanies the movements. The practice encourages flowing from posture to posture without pausing, ensuring that an individual’s body remains in constant motion. The meditative movement is a noncompetitive, self-paced system that consists of physical exercise and stretching.

Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL)

When people are ill, their quality of life diminishes. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL)offers a comprehensive measure of well-being. It reflects people’s perceptions of their health and their satisfaction with life over a certain period of time.

People who suffer from mental health conditions may report poor HRQoL. When you compare individuals with common medical conditions to people with mental health conditions, you may find that there is a significant difference in their level of HRQoL impairments. People with mental health conditions may have relatively larger HRQoL impairments compared to those with common medical disorders. Taiji can help improve the health-related quality of life and may be an important exercise for the treatment of mental disorders.

Help with Anxiety, Mood, and Depression

A Japanese trial conducted in 2010 evaluated elderly people who had cerebral vascular disorder. The trial studied different approaches to deal with the participants’ anxiety. The participants practiced taiji or participated in standard rehabilitation in various group sessions at least one time a week for twelve weeks. The participants who practiced taiji experienced improvement in symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and sleep quality.

Help with Substance Abuse

For people who are receiving treatment for addiction, practicing taiji may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Withdrawal symptoms are one of the greatest challenges addicts face when recovering from addiction. The symptoms can be so severe that people are unable to cope with them. They may return to using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain of withdrawal.

Practicing taiji helps to lower relapse rates and reduces cravings. Individuals who have been treated for addiction may still experience the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol. Relapses occur when people who have received treatment return to using drugs and alcohol. Taiji may help reduce cravings, help people complete their treatment programs, and stay sober after their treatment.

Suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could create poor mental well-being. People may be unable to control negative feelings and emotions or even make sound decisions. Taiji exercises may help instill confidence, energy, and stamina to deal with life challenges. They may help reduce stress, depression, or anxiety.

If you are an addict, you may want to seek treatment at an addiction rehab and begin your journey to recovery. A rehab center will provide various treatment programs and techniques, which may include the use of mind-body practices such as taiji and yoga to help with treatment and recovery.

Author Bio: Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and martial arts lover that primarily writes about mental health, wellness, martial arts, and how they all pertain to everyday life. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet. You can find a lot of his work at the Willow Springs Recovery Blog

Guest Writer: Should Adults Begin Martial Arts? (I bet you can guess the answer)

BJJ white belts

Hello Little Black Belt readers! Have you always wanted to try martial arts but feel like life keeps getting in the way? Do you feel like you’re too old or out of shape or just plain busy? Or are you like me, who did a martial art as a kid and never though you’d return to it?  

Now is the time to start, and I have a treat for you! I’d like to welcome my second guest writer Richard to the blog. Richard runs the fantastic BJJ and MMA blog Attack the Back and shares his thoughts on what it’s like to start a martial art as an adult and the benefits he has experienced. Enjoy!

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When people think about martial arts, they normally think of a few things, poorly dubbed kung-fu movies and a class full of children shouting “KAI.” But not everyone who does martial arts started off as a child. My story is a little bit different. I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and for those who don’t know the belt system in BJJ it’s a follows:

White
Blue
Purple
Brown
Black

Not many belts huh… The thing is it’s not about the amount of belts, it’s about how long it can take to get to each BJJ belt. Like I said, I’m a blue belt, but BJJ has been a big part of my life for around 6 years now. I train on average 3 times a week, and while my journey is a little slower than some, it takes around 10-15 years to get your black belt, most people can go to university and become a qualified doctor in the same time.

Anyway, that is a little background story, what may surprise you about me is that I started my martial arts journey in September 2010 at the ripe age of 24. Which maybe surprising for some, not a lot of people decide to take up a martial art so late. My story may sound familiar to a lot of people. I was stuck in an unfulfilling 9 to 5 job, I was working my job, coming home, having tea, going on the computer/watching TV, going to bed, wake up, rinse & repeat.

I needed something more in my life. I had an interest in MMA and used to watch it in University in the evenings (but I didn’t want to get hit in the face.) I remembered my friend used to harp on about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; in fact that friend is now a black belt and runs his own academy, so I got in touch and decided to give it a shot.

And that’s where my life changed and Jiu-jitsu became my obsession. I gained more confidence in my day-to-day life, partying and going out become a low priority (why spend money on booze when you can train?), and overall I felt healthier.

Should adults start martial arts?

So if you were reading this and were thinking about starting a new martial art or sport, then I would recommend that you at least give it a go. You may find something you love, you may not. What I do suggest is that if you’re looking to lose weight, get healthier, and fitter, find something that you love doing that’s active. That way anything lifestyle choices are done because of your new hobby, not because you’re forced into it. For me Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was a new lease of life, which is why I started my blog Attack The Back, to give back to the community. So what are you waiting for? Have a go, it maybe the best decision you ever made.

Guest Writer: How to Turn the Great Outdoors into a Martial Arts Ground

Hello Little Black Belt readers! I’d like to introduce my very first guest writer, Diamond from the health and wellness website eHealthInformer. Enjoy!

 low-block-in-sunset

Some of the most influential martial artists preach that no matter what form you practice, you can take it anywhere with you. Martial arts are about physical and mental health, radiating balance and positivity throughout the student’s life. This opens up a huge amount of opportunity for the martial artist, as it means they can and should practice anywhere they please. Ideas such as this also help students to reinvigorate their love for martial arts, as repetition and constantly similar surroundings can cause boredom that leads to bad form and concentration levels.

Martial arts can’t be confined to a dojang or studio. They can certainly be taught and practiced there, but it’s a lifestyle choice, not a hobby. Now we’re going to explore the possibilities and opportunities for how you can turn the great outdoors into a martial arts ground.

Use Your Imagination

When you put your mind to it, almost any environment can be transformed into an area to practice martial arts. Whether you’re in a forest or a field, it doesn’t matter; nature has everything you need to master certain elements of your chosen style. Fulfilling an exercise routine using what you have around you in nature can be a fun and educational experience. Try using strong tree branches for pull ups or utilizing the exercise equipment at your local park.

Also, many teachers advise students to use meditation as a part of their daily routine. Why not meditate in an undisturbed, peaceful environment, such as near a lake or on a hilltop? Get creative with your local area and see what ideas you can come up with.

If you’re already outside in the wilderness and are finding it difficult to use your imagination, you can scan YouTube and the rest of the internet for ideas, as there are many martial arts based exercises, drills and meditation techniques you can learn from the platform.

Be Safe

hipster-on-a-rock

Nobody wants to be a spoilsport, but it is worth mentioning that the risks and dangers of injuring yourself in an unsecured environment are higher than in the dojo. Without safety mats and your Sifu, Sensei, or Sabumnim (depending on your chosen style) present, you must take precautions and be realistic as to what you take outside of your regular studio sessions.

Also, understand the laws in your area. If you aren’t allowed to take certain weaponry out into the open (especially without the correct licensing), you could be arrested or have your equipment confiscated.

In the spirit of safety, it’s worth mentioning that if you do choose to use YouTube while outside to learn exercises and drills, you’ll be vulnerable to hackers. It is worth hiding your IP address so that your information is secure and can’t be stolen.

Embracing the Unknown

middle-punch-in-sunlight
Practicing your martial arts outside is beneficial for many reasons, one of which is conditioning the body to react with accuracy in all types of weather. The outside training ground gives us a unique and unpredictable area to practice in, which heightens our senses and spatial awareness. Also, the predictability of the environment in a dojang is obvious to most students, since the temperature, ground condition and personal space is so familiar.

In the outdoors, the ground may be uneven, the temperature is constantly changing, and who knows what will enter our personal space. We can put ourselves in situations that test our abilities to the next level outdoors, as there’s a wide range of circumstances and environments to explore.

Nature gives us a new dimension to experience when practicing martial arts outside. Hearing wildlife, water and the sounds of your surroundings induces a sense of connection and wonder into your immediate location. You might find yourself conjuring up images of Kwai Chang Caine from the legendary series “Kung Fu.” However, don’t let this take away the seriousness of the practice. The fact that you’re learning a way of life that will protect you and give you a sense of balance and health in life means a great deal.

Have any tips or experiences for training outdoors with martial arts? Please leave us a comment in the section below.

About the Author: Diamond is a martial arts practitioner who enjoys spreading the lifestyle and its many benefits through blogging. She also likes to practice in all environments and believes that the “dojo” is taken with the student wherever they go. Check out more of her articles on fitness, healthcare, nutrition, and technology at eHealthInformer.com.

Guest Post: 4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

Check out my latest guest post from the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com:
4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

I’m not into New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about self-awareness and continuous self improvement, which can happen at any time of the year. Start out 2017 right with a renewed commitment to your practice. Even if you don’t do martial arts these tips can help you set and achieve goals in any area.

2017

 

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

meditating-at-desk
It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

My Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress

Dreading going back to the office on Monday? Counting down the minutes until Friday? Then consider taking up a martial art to help you ease work-related stress. Check out how in September’s guest post for BookMartialArts.com: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress.

work-stress-man
Some knife-hand blocks would serve him well right now.

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe

chairs

I am not, by nature, a loyal person.

Connecting with other people has always been difficult for me. Although I come from a close-knit family and have been a serial monogamist in romantic relationships, when it comes to groups of friends or associates I tend to shy away. I truly enjoy interacting with people, especially those with whom I share similar interests, but I have a little problem with commitment. When things start to move too fast, and it starts getting too close, I bail. Once the fun wears off and things get serious, I don’t want to stick around. To be honest, I’m a bit of a player. I like the flirtatious rush at the beginning, but I don’t want to deal with the long-term time and energy investment.

I’ve been a member of a Catholic Bible study group, a running club, and even a swing dance syndicate. (Hey, swing dance was a thing in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Don’t act like you don’t remember.) I went to their homes, their parties, their events. Eventually, though, I felt cramped by the commitment and began to put more and more distance between myself and my various social groups until I disconnected myself completely.

My longest standing “group” relationship has been with the young professionals crowd at my city’s modern art museum. On paper I seem like a perfect fit. I live in a trendy part of town. I love art. As much as I despise hipsters and yuppies (the major demographic of the young professionals group), I’m a blend of both with just a dash of hippie thrown in. I’m still skimming under the age limit, although I will not be in the “under 40 friends” category for much longer. I’ve been a member of this group for over ten years, but I consider only one of them a friend.

I am a lone wolf, an Ebenezer Scrooge, a ghost.

I knew my relationship with the modern art group was fading fast at an event last Friday. The event, which was held at an offsite gallery downtown, featured the work of a local artist, and more importantly, a donut food truck. I rarely get dressed up and go out, and I had been looking forward to this event for weeks.

Thirty seconds into the event, I wanted to leave. There I was in a cramped room, sipping mediocre wine, looking at mediocre art, and surrounded by people I didn’t know and had no interest in getting to know better. I loathed the thought of being dragged into the false-cheery, superficial, “What do you do? Oh, interesting! Oh, and what do you do?” vicious circle of vacuous conversation. I realized with a sinking feeling that I had absolutely nothing in common with these people other than an appreciation for art.

I missed my dojang, my classmates, and my instructors, and found myself thinking more about the color belt students who were testing that night than the people milling around in front of me in the gallery. I turned on my heel, bought a Cinnamon Toast Crunch donut from the food truck, which made the otherwise dull outing worth it, and rushed home. As I ate my donut in my fortress of solitude (WORTH IT!) I eagerly gazed at Facebook posts from testing students and parents of testing students and looked forward to when I could see everyone in class the following Monday.

donut
WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!

It’s been said that you “just know” when you’re in love, and I think the same can be said for when you know you’ve finally found your tribe.  It’s taken me over thirty years to find a group of people besides family that I can be loyal to. The funny thing is, I wasn’t really looking for a  “community” when I began taekwondo training. I took up taekwondo because I wanted to put a stop to my self-destructive behaviors and do something good for myself. What I didn’t expect to get was camaraderie, closeness, and a desire to serve. Now I have two families.

Maybe the reason why I feel so at ease in my dojang and am willing to stay late, help out, listen, learn, and finally make a commitment to a group of people I’m not linked to by blood is this: I went into the relationship with no expectations. I wasn’t trying to figure out how I could use anyone to fill some kind of void. I wasn’t vying for anyone’s attention or approval, and perhaps for those reasons, my very high walls began to crumble. They bring out the best in me, which sadly hasn’t been the case with my other relationships.

So maybe that’s the trick to finding your tribe, in whatever form that may be: when you’re willing to give more than you get, you’ve found them. When you don’t hold anyone to the impossible expectation of making you feel better about yourself (because that’s your job, not theirs), you’ve found them. When you find yourself thinking about them often and counting the days until you can see them again, you’ve found them.

Meanwhile, I think it might be time to change my membership level at the modern art museum.

How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic

empathy blood

Once upon a time I knew a man who didn’t in believe emotional intelligence. He even bragged about heatedly arguing with a facilitator who had been brought to his workplace to give a presentation about emotional intelligence. As he told me this story I silently thanked my lucky stars that he didn’t work for my company and therefore would never attend a workshop that I facilitated as a leadership and organizational development consultant.

This Man-I-Used-to-Know’s argument against emotional intelligence was that he shouldn’t have to “change” himself to please the other person. In his mind, it was no better than false representation. For example, if my style is very direct, and I’m doing business with someone who likes to warm up meetings with small talk and niceties, too f*cking bad! It’s my way or the highway! To this man, adapting his own personality tendencies and communication style for the sake of another person was nonsense and no better than lying and deceiving the other person. He felt like the concept of emotional intelligence was forcing him to be something he wasn’t. The other person’s needs, personality, and style weren’t a consideration.

This man also claimed to be incapable of feeling empathy. I later found out the hard way he was telling the truth.

I am not going to get into the nitty gritty details of defining emotional intelligence. You can find that elsewhere on the web. Here’s a really quick definition according to Psychology Today:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include 3 skills:
1. Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others;
2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving;
3. The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions, and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.”

I’ve written posts on here before about how taekwondo has brought me out of my shell and helped me connect with people in a way I haven’t been able to (or outright refused to) in the past. I believe it’s also made me more empathetic, self-aware, and mindful of other people. I’m not perfect and still have lots of work to do, but I’ve come a long way.

Less than a decade ago, my emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and pretty much everything lying between my ears was crap. I was so blinded by my own self-loathing, loneliness, and misery, that I didn’t even know how to interact with other people, much less be mindful of how I did it. Anxiety and sadness had swallowed me up to the point that I was just running on auto-pilot to make sure my façade to the world was still intact: go to work, go to school, pay the bills, cry in private. Who cared how I related to other people? In my mind (at the time) they were all going to hurt me anyway, so why even bother?

Fast forward to 2016: I am pleased to say that during my recent annual performance review, my boss repeatedly praised my empathetic nature and self-awareness. I don’t mean to brag; I’m just so glad that I’ve done a 180 from where I was a few years ago. I told him that while some of that came from growing into my job and having the support of an amazing team, much of that came from taekwondo, especially in the early growing pains of being a new “assistant instructor.”

In the very short time that I’ve been a black belt, I’ve learned that while an authoritative, one-size-fits-all approach is often what’s most appropriate for the militant discipline of a martial arts class, there are plenty of opportunities to flex my EQ muscles and adapt my style to the needs of others. Depending on age, belt level, maturity, and personality, my coaching style can morph. I’ve started to pick up on more subtle learning factors of the other students, such as confidence levels, how they’ve responded to past direction, how they are responding to me, and their general mood during that particular class. I’ve learned to go against the adult learning practices I use in the workplace (i.e., talk it out) and be more directive with the kids. I’ve learned that I need to be mindful of the parents’ perception of me in addition to the students’ and instructors’ perception.

I once had a participant in a workshop I was teaching at my workplace remark that my facilitation style was very nurturing (Note that he did not try to argue me out of the room the way the man I mentioned at the beginning of this post probably would have). That’s carried over into the dojang. With some students I am gentle and patient, although with others I know I can be a little tougher.  “Nurturer” is still my default, which may provide a softer contrast to the no-nonsense approach of my male instructors, but I know I will have to push myself out of that comfort zone. I can’t be the mother hen all the time. After all, I have to adapt to what my instructors need from me as well as the students.

Am I a saint who can instantly empathize with everyone? Oh heck no. I’m still anti-social and detached in many situations. I’m polite, but being friendly takes a concerted effort. I could go an entire week without speaking to anyone and be fine, and I still have to remind myself that it’s important to others that I acknowledge them (greeting someone at work in the morning, stuff like that). I’m still the nicest version of myself in the dojang, which unfortunately means people in other areas of my life get the short end of the stick.

…But I know I’ve made progress. My boss wouldn’t have praised my awareness of both myself and how I relate to and serve others if I wasn’t displaying empathy, and I don’t do that to put on an act. I have a big, fat, blood-gushing heart and care very much about the well-being of others, sometimes to the point that I worry too much and can become overly protective. Mother hen turns into mama bear. Finding that balance is still a work in progress.

Putting myself in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s at work or in the dojang or anywhere else gets me out of my head for a while and helps me focus on something outside of myself.  Being able to serve other people and hopefully make their lives easier through the way I treat them is truly heartwarming. That’s a feeling can’t be replicated without making the conscious effort to connect with other people.

And I get to punch some of the people I’m making a conscious effort to connect with. That’s pretty sweet. Told you I wasn’t a saint.